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Ignore usability at your peril

By Michael Feldstein / September 2002

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When I first considered buying a Palm Pilot, I came up with a simple test to see if it would be worthwhile. I went into a retail store where they were being sold. I picked up the display model and started trying it out. I decided that if I could figure out how to use it in five minutes or less without looking at any instructions, I would buy it. If it turned out to be too hard, it probably wouldn't be worth my effort to learn. As it turns out, the Palm passed my test. Had it failed, I probably still wouldn't have one today, four years later.

I believe that first-time users of online learning often impose a similar test. If they don't find it to be immediately useful then they walk away. Those that do reject online learning are not likely to return to it any time soon.

How Expensive is too Expensive?

When usability testing comes up in the context of online learning, what we invariably hear almost immediately is that it is just too expensive. I reject this argument for two reasons. First, it does not take into account the cost of not doing usability testing. We don't know how many expensive online learning initiatives are sabotaged by poor usability. We don't know how many potential online learners reject not only their first courses but every course thereafter for years to come as a result of a poor usability experience. We don't know because nobody (to my knowledge) has done the necessary studies yet. I suspect that when those studies are finally done, the numbers will be shockingly high.

The second reason that I reject the expense objection is that I don't think usability testing need be all that expensive. To begin with, the vast majority of user interfaces for online learning need not be—and generally aren't in practice—substantially different from each other. If this is true, then we will not need substantial usability testing for most individual courses. We simply need to identify best practices once and establish some industry-wide conventions. On those occasions where e-learning interfaces do need to vary, it ought to be possible to establish (through research) some heuristics that can be applied to e-learning usability testing relatively inexpensively.

A Challenge

I challenge the industry to take this problem on. A coalition of LCMS and virtual classroom vendors, online learning content providers, and university researchers should be able to make a coordinated effort on usability at relatively low cost to each of the institutional participants. Given that we don't have any idea how much doing nothing is costing everyone, it seems to me that at least some basic research should be a no-brainer for all the stakeholders. I have tried to provide a starting place for this effort by writing a new tutorial outlining a proposal for a research agenda. I hope that others who are more qualified will take up the banner and lead the charge. There is no good reason not to solve this problem.


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